HMNZS Taranaki, Otago, Waikato, Canterbury Credit: National Museum of the NZ Navy
This year should see a lot of changes at Waka Kotahi.
At the end of May, the Ministry for the Environment intends to publish its Emissions Reductions Plan (ERP), which will lay out the policies and strategies for meeting the first emissions budget. The timing will mark the close of Sir Brian Roche’s term as Board Chair. From June on, there’ll be a new Board Chair (yet to be appointed or announced).
The CEO, Nicole Rosie, will continue to lead the organisation. She can already pre-empt a lot of the transport planning required to meet the ERP. The organisation is due for making a U-turn on some fundamental planning concepts anyway.
In Europe, the New EU Urban Mobility Framework was published mid December. It calls for governance at all levels:
to take more decisive action on urban mobility to shift from the current approach based on traffic flows to an approach based on moving people and goods more sustainably.
In the US:
The OECD’s International Transport Forum (ITF) is urging countries to:
Each of these indicates a massive shift in planning, and Rosie shouldn’t wait for the ERP to be published before establishing new systems. Waka Kotahi’s planning – based on traffic flows and treating road diets with skepticism – still uses the outdated “predict and provide” planning methods. The ITF warn:
the use of such forecasting methods often seems to have led to a cyclical reinforcement of undesirable trends.
These “undesirable trends” – like our high emissions, safety crisis, and maintenance costs spiralling out of control – won’t be addressed until the planning is overhauled.
The ITF go so far as to say:
Some work is underway. Waka Kotahi’s Board Chair has said:
Internally we’ve done a lot of work to actually align the culture, focus and understanding of what we are seeking to do on a daily basis.
The trouble is, the scale of change required is massive. Leadership needs to be crystal clear that achieving new outcomes is as much about clearing out unsustainable work programmes as it is about adding in new ones. The staff who are doing progressive work are stymied by the organisation’s focus on road expansion. It’s simply no coincidence that the planning methods which should have been dropped long ago, are the ones that skew the investment evaluations to favour road building.
We need a flip in paradigm at leadership level.
This post is about the 2020/21 Annual Review of Waka Kotahi, where the agency’s:
- Board Chair Sir Brian Roche,
- CEO Nicole Rosie and
- General Manager of Transport Services Brett Gliddon
faced scrutiny from parliament’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee. It was an opportunity for:
- Members of parliament from four different parties to question the agency’s performance,
- The agency to provide technical advice, dispel myths held by the politicians, and to explain the consequences of political direction on outcomes, and
- The public to see how topics are being discussed, in order to hold everyone to account.
This transparency is important. Although in theory the government’s direction is given in the Government Policy Statement on Transport (GPS) and both good governance and leadership ensure it is implemented via good planning:
in reality, the Minister is shackled with challenges in the governance system. This is an international problem:
The public can’t leave this to chance. To ensure Waka Kotahi adopt sustainable planning processes, we need a good view of their planning processes and decisions AND a good view of the political direction they’re being given, and governance to achieve it. In short, transparency will help everyone upskill together:
The last thing we need is more secrecy, as indicated by Roche:
I think the lesson is we need to be perhaps more cautious about what is made public before we have a clear ability to execute on it.
We are still hearing aspirational words from Roche:
Our role in the pathway to a carbon reduced world is going to evolve in the next short while and that will require us to change our attitudes and focus on a wide range of areas.
Yet New Zealand made commitments to emissions reductions last century. Roche was the inaugural chair of Waka Kotahi so can hold a significant level of responsibility for the “attitudes and focus” not being sustainable from the outset.
Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) was discussed at the annual review, one of the country’s more progressive programmes of work.
Green Party MP Ricardo Menendez March asked whether its delivery dates are aligned with our emissions reduction ambitions:
I’m noting that the draft ERP wants to cut vehicle use by 20% by 2035, and LGWM will only be completed by 2036 at the earliest and 2043 at the latest. So do you think these projections are still useful in light of our need to rapidly reduce emissions and encourage mode shift?
Yes we do. LGWM has several components to it. One is mode shift. The other one is getting better connectivity and mobility across the city. I think, when you consider the issues in LGWM, we’re actually addressing problems which aren’t emerging but that have been with the community for ten years. So we don’t actually have the luxury of getting perfect alignment but we will do our best to ensure there is best alignment.
Planning doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to be timely. Good “decide and provide” planning can speed up a radical reduction in vehicle travel, using concepts like road reallocation. Road widening like below, on the other hand, stems from outdated “predict and provide” planning:
And while expressions like “the luxury of perfect alignment” give an appearance of being “moderate”, they work to divert attention from the MP’s important query about climate planning. “Climate Change” and “Better Travel Options” are key strategic priorities in the Government Policy Statement on Transport (GPS), and both require a focus on enabling mode shift. Neither are “emerging” issues. The GPS specifically directs Waka Kotahi to take a more proactive role in accelerating mode shift, and the system can be designed for people, sustainably, with no conflict between “mode shift” and “connectivity and mobility”.
The General Manager of Transport Services, Brett Gliddon, then added:
if we can accelerate the next phases of the detailed design and consenting phases, and procurement, then absolutely. We will look to start that sooner.
Ricardo Menendez March remained outcomes-focused:
… could [you] give me some more detail about what you think needs changing in order for you to feel confident that it can be… fit for purpose, with the draft ERP, in terms of cutting emissions and also vehicle use?
The General Manager answered:
I think the constraints on LGWM and the dates are around just the realities of delivering major projects. Bearing in mind this is about $6b worth in investment both in light rail or some form of mass transit, and strategic road. The constraints on that are naturally doing the detailed design but [also] the property purchase and going through the consenting pathway…
And therein lies the rub. Road widening requires more land, introducing expensive property purchase costs, and complicating the consenting pathway. In the new paradigm, using road reallocation rather than road widening, these costs are minimised and the consenting pathway is far easier.
The politician asked good questions, but the agency showed reducing vehicle travel is not yet central to their planning.
Travel time savings
National MP Simeon Brown also asked about LGWM:
you’re going to close a tunnel for walking and cycling, build a tunnel with no additional lanes, and effectively mean that motorists are spending an extra eight minutes getting from the airport to Johnsonville, and there’s still that decision around a potential pedestrian crossing on Cobham Drive, which carries 35,000 vehicles a day. It just seems ironic that you’re still calling it “Let’s Get Wellington Moving”.
This was an opportunity for the transport leaders to explain that “additional lanes” for vehicles are not the mark of a quality project. Indeed, improved outcomes are achieved by reducing traffic, which often involves removing lanes. Here are a few of the pathways involved:
The problem on Cobham Drive is too many vehicles, and a traffic reduction approach is needed, not an aversion to providing the most basic level of safety for people on foot. Instead, Roche replied:
We don’t think there’s any irony in that title. Your point’s well made.
Which point was well made?
- The point about additional lanes?
- The point about the pedestrian crossing?
- The point about motorists’ travel times?
Here was an opportunity to explain that focusing on motorists’ travel times hasn’t worked, whereas a focus on mode shift and safety improves the system for everyone, including drivers.
That’s why we’re out for consultation, and we’ll be guided by the comments that come back before we make the big capital decisions. As Brett said, there are some early wins, and then there are some very hard decisions facing this community, and we’ll get to that when we’ve got the appropriate information and feedback from the public.
Perhaps Roche was defending the consultation process. Or perhaps he was reassuring the MP that with enough public or political push, additional lanes could be added to the design – despite their impact on emissions and future generations.
A related issue was raised by the ACT MP Simon Court:
So earlier this year, the State Highway Whangarei to Port Marsden four-laning project was cancelled and that budget was allocated to the rail spur project. Why is it that there is no attempt or budget to protect the corridor for the four laning, and does that mean that that project is not likely to go ahead?
If Waka Kotahi do their job, vehicle traffic volumes will drop across the country, so there’ll be little need for four-laning from now on.
Instead of explaining this, Roche said,
We’ve made no secret of our lack of funding to achieve some of what you’ve said. You know, we believe very strongly that we should be protecting corridors for future generations but that is an issue of funding…
Future generations have many needs, but corridor protection for creating four lane roads is not one of them. The General Manager then pointed out the source of funding for this particular project was the NZ Upgrade Package and so was directly funded by government. This was a useful answer. He could have further explained that no community in New Zealand has indicated it is willing to pay tolls that would cover all the costs of and externalities imposed by road widening – including the impacts on public health, accessibility, urban form, local environment and climate.
Four-laning can not realistically be achieved in line with the ACT party’s user pays principles. Waka Kotahi should be providing that information, so the politician can direct his questions where they are most useful.
Waka Kotahi need to demonstrate how they will:
- Shift to a “decide and provide” approach based on moving people and goods more sustainably
- Plan for timely reductions in vehicle travel, aiming for sustainable outcomes in the short and medium term
- Use road reallocation and asset repurposing, along with tactical methods
- Treat property purchase and corridor protection as a red flag; an indication the project is probably attempting to accommodate “predicted” traffic volumes
For the sake of our health, the liveability of our country and our children’s future in a healthier environment, 2022 needs to be the year Waka Kotahi changes course, and throws all its resource into sustainable transport planning. The politicians need to give their support – and strong direction – to make sure this happens.
Let’s hold them all accountable.